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Appeals Court Finds Employee Burden Limit to Religious Accommodation

June 8, 2022

By Michael Burns, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently found for the employer in a religious discrimination case. The case involved a worker in the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) whose religious belief required him to observe the Sabbath on Sunday.

He worked as a particular type of postal carrier that delivered mail to rural areas and covered for absent employees. His position was a type of “on-call” job where he worked as needed. This included Sundays as part of a program where the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) took on “critical” delivery work from Amazon.

Gerald Groff, the Plaintiff told his employer he could not work on Sundays. The USPS endeavored to accommodate Groff by proposing several forms of accommodation including scheduling him for work after Sunday services. He was also allowed to seek out other carriers to work in his place and had various Postmasters seeking out work coverage for him as well as in one case when the Postmaster did his work.

The burden of accommodating Mr. Groff came to a head during the 2018 peak season for delivery. Other carriers had to work more both in terms of time worked and additional Sunday deliveries than they normally would have to.

After more than 20 Sundays where the Plaintiff did not work and no coworker could be found to swap shifts, the USPS disciplined Mr. Groff and he subsequently resigned.

Plaintiff Groff sued the USPS for religious discrimination. The District Court held that the USPS had tried to reasonably accommodate Groff through the shift swaps he was allowed to arrange. The lower court found that Groff working no Sundays was an undue hardship.

On appeal, that court saw the case a bit differently; however, still held in favor of the employer. The Appellate Court found the USPS accommodation was not reasonable because it did not remove the conflict. The Court viewed the shift swapping approach to accommodation was not an accommodation under “Title VII because it did not successfully eliminate the conflict.” The Court held rather, the accommodation itself was an undue hardship and that “an employer is not required to accommodate at all costs.” The religious accommodation bar the Court pointed to is “an undue hardship for religious accommodation is one that results in more than a de minimis cost to the employer.”

The USPS accommodation exempting Groff from Sunday work would cause an undue hardship on the employer. Under religious discrimination accommodation law, the Court saw an ongoing exemption from Sunday work causing more than a de-minimis cost to USPS. It saw the accommodation imposing additional work on co-workers. The disruption to the workplace and workflow and the subsequent diminished employee morale are all clearly above de minimis in cost to the employer, and therefore, a hardship that was sufficiently undue under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

For religious accommodation requests employers are advised to consider every request in good faith and engage in the interactive dialogue to determine if the accommodation can be provided. The accommodation; however, should not negatively impact other workers or the operations of the organization.

Don’t forget the basics around Religious Accommodation and Vaccination

The issue of religious accommodation has come up more recently when employers are trying to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations in their workforce. Some employees have rejected vaccination based upon religious beliefs. These employees are protected in basically the same way, and employers should apply the same accommodation determination process. Take the request seriously. Do not look for specific phrasing or magic words to the request in order to address it. The accommodation, in this case, not getting vaccinated, should be granted unless it will create that undue burden the Court decided in the case above. That is if the burden of accommodation creates more than a de minimis cost, either monetary or non-monetary on the employer.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s non-binding guidance states the following factors in seeking additional information about the accommodation request or in denying a religious accommodation request:

  • Whether the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief;
  • Whether the accommodation sought is for nonreligious reasons;
  • Whether the timing of the request is suspicious, such as immediately after a request for accommodation of the COVID-19 vaccine for secular reasons; and
  • Whether the employer has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.

 The determination of whether an accommodation is reasonable is fact specific as to actual and real hardship. The hardship determination should not be speculative or predicted.

Employers should know that granting one employee a religious accommodation does not require them to grant every employee’s request for accommodation. Employers do not have to grant an indefinite accommodation either. This is important to keep in mind because COVID can change and result in quickly changing safety measures and guidelines.

Unlike the USPS case, Courts have not yet ruled on how employers should handle objections to mandated vaccination policies. So far, in the limited cases that have been filed, Courts have rejected requests for immediate blockage of enforcement of vaccine policies. In other words, Courts are lining up behind safety before religious belief.

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